GENIUS OR MADNESS?
Professor Glenn Wilson, Gresham College, London
WISDOM OF THE POETS
Great wits are sure to madness near allied
And thin partitions do their bounds divide.
(John Dryden, 1681)
There is no great genius without a tincture of
madness.
(Seneca, 1st Century A.D.)
ISAAC NEWTON
Newton, one of the
greatest scientists ever,
introduced the concept
of gravity and made
major contributions to
mechanics, optics &
mathematics.
Was intensely
suspicious and
distrustful. In later life
dabbled in alchemy and
sought hidden messages
in the Bible. Suffered
mercury poisoning?
(Keynes, 2008)
NIKOLA TESLA
Rivalled Edison as an
inventor, obtaining around
300 patents on radio and
electrical technology. Pioneer
of AC current and hydroelectric power.
Spoke 8 languages and had a
photographic memory.
Claimed to be in
communication with other
planets and to have invented
“death rays”. Various bizarre
OCD symptoms. Celibate &
reclusive. Slept for two
hours/night.
A BEAUTIFUL MIND
John Nash - Nobel prize
winning mathematician.
Developed game theory
as applied to social
sciences.
Experienced paranoid
delusions. Hospitalised
involuntarily & had to
feign sanity to get
discharged.
I wouldn’t have had such
good scientific ideas if I
had thought more
normally.
GALILEO
Whether one is recognised
as a genius or seen as crazy
depends partly on cultural
context.
To the Counter-Reformation
Church, Galileo was
dangerously heretical
because his observations
supported a heliocentric
theory of the planets.
In other times and places
Picasso and Einstein might
have been committed to an
insane asylum rather than
revered for their originality.
Galileo faced a Vatican Inquisition in 1633.
His ideas were declared “foolish and absurd”
and he was sentenced to house arrest for life.
The ban on his writings remained until 1835.
He was vindicated by Pope John Paul II in
1992 and an apology was issued in 2000.
BEHAVIOUR GENETICS
Evidence for a genius-madness
link comes from fact that close
relatives of creative people
have higher rates of
schizophrenia, and vice versa
(psychotics have more creative
relatives).
(Simonton, 2005)
I have been surprised at
finding how often insanity or
idiocy has appeared among the
near relatives of exceptionally
able people (Francis Galton,
Hereditary Genius, 1892)
Einstein’s schizophrenic son (Eduard)
TROUBLED AUTHORS
Mental disorder is more
common in close
relatives of creative
people than in creatives
themselves. Actual
illness usually impedes
creative success.
Exception is writers,
who themselves have
high rates of many
disorders, including
schizophrenia, mood
disorders, anxiety,
alcoholism, drug abuse
and suicide.
(Kyaga et al, 2012).
Virginia Woolf suffered severe depressive episodes,
finally drowning herself in the River Ouse.
“CRADLES OF EMINENCE”
Childhood trauma
and orphan status are
more common in
high achievers
(Goetzel et al, 2004).
Such experiences
may be motivating
and inspirational,
while also inducing
mental illness.
But wealth is more
frequent than poverty
in families of famous
and ill-treatment may
be genetically linked.
Charles Dickens’ father was in debtors’ prison so
he left school early to work in a factory (c.f.,
themes of child maltreatment and social reform).
BIZARRE & GRANDIOSE
Certain traits and thought
processes are shared by genius
and madman. Ideas are novel,
unconventional and grandiose.
Usually workaholic,
ambitious, narcissistic & selfpromoting.
Various genes and
neurotransmitters implicated:
including testosterone, a
growth factor called
neuregulin (NRG1), and
genes modulating dopamine
in the brain (DARPP-32).
PERSONALITY & CREATIVITY
Genius goes with high IQ &
Psychoticism (P): includes
novelty-seeking, risk-taking,
impulsiveness, nonconformity, self-confidence
& work-addiction.
Associated with high
dopamine & testosterone
(Eysenck, 1995).
Possessing some indicators
of schizotypy promotes
creative achievement but not
full-blown schizophrenia.
(Kuszewki, 2009)
DOPAMINE CIRCUITS
Commence in
limbic mid-brain
and project to
motivational areas
of the frontal
cortex.
Systems concerned
with reward,
approach and
positive mood.
Implicated in
novelty-seeking,
impulsiveness,
psychoticism,
addiction.
LOOSE ASSOCIATIONS
Schizophrenic thinking is
characterised by loose
associations – “thinking
outside the box”.
e.g., Unusual responses on
Word Association test;
Dali’s surrealistic designs.
Flashcards are used in “brainstorming” sessions to force
fresh ideas.
Great artists/scientists usually
seen as “rebels” in their field.
OVERINCLUSIVE THINKING
Schizophrenics and
“manic” persons often set
boundaries of relevance too
broadly.
c.f., great thinkers who
come up with “grand
unifications”.
To most people there is no
connection between an
apple falling off a tree and
the motion of planets.
Newton (1665) was able to
connect them with concept
of gravity.
Newton’s apple tree at
Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincs
APOPHENIA
Human tendency to see
meaningful patterns
where they do not exist.
Underlies superstition,
belief in paranormal,
seeing ghosts, UFOs,
miracles, conspiracies,
hearing “voices” etc.
Apophenia is
exaggerated in
schizotypal persons and
increased by dopamine.
May contribute to both
creativity and madness.
Face on Mars (captured
by Viking 1, 1976).
BIPOLAR MOOD DISORDER
Off the wall comedian Paul
Merton among many
creative performers treated
for mood disorder.
Merton also displayed
certain psychotic symptoms
such as hearing voices and
believing he was targeted by
Freemasons.
His freestyle comedy style
seems to benefit from “loose
associations” (c.f., Spike
Milligan).
PSYCHOSIS AND MOOD DISORDER
Genetic analysis
shows overlap
between
schizophrenia and
bipolar mood
disorder. Some
genes unique to each
condition; others
(including NRG1)
are common to both.
(Schematic diagram
from Owen et al,
2007)
THE AUTISTIC SPECTRUM
Asperger’s Syndrome (deficient
social communication) has been
posthumously assigned to many
geniuses, including
Michelangelo, Mozart, Newton,
Wittgenstein, Marie Curie and
Einstein.
Another way of saying they
were slightly odd or
schizotypal?
Michelangelo was melancholic, abstemious,
work-obsessed, solitary and lacking social skills.
THE SAVANT PHENOMENON
Savants are autistic
individuals with
exceptional skills,
usually in musical,
mathematical or
memory skills.
Usually too narrow
and low in general IQ
to be great achievers.
Prenatal testosterone
may be involved.
The film Rain Man concerns an autistic man whose
memory for cards was exploited by his brother in
Las Vegas casinos. Character based on Kim Peek, a
savant who probably had a chromosome disorder
(Opitz-Kaveggia Syndrome).
ARTISTIC MADNESS?
Louis Wain was a trained
artist, hospitalised for
schizophrenia in 1924. His
trademark cats began as
funny and whimsical (to
entertain ailing wife);
became progressively
abstract and kaleidoscopic
(even scary).
May actually have suffered
from Asperger’s or
Toxoplasmosis (a parasite
that can be caught from
cats).
CREATIVES APPEAR SEMI-PSYCHOTIC
MMPI profiles of
creative artists are
on a continuum
towards psychosis
(similar profiles,
but less extreme).
(Simonton, 2005)
Survival of genes
for madness down
to association with
creativity? Helps
to be slightly mad.
CREATIVITY AS COURTSHIP
Art functions as a
mating display (c.f.
the bower bird).
Successful male
artists have more
sexual partners than
unsuccessful ones.
(No such
connection for
female artists).
Male output for art,
books, scientific
discoveries is 10x
M/F.
(Clegg et al, 2011)
INSIGHT AND CONTROL
Lucia Joyce (daughter of novelist
James Joyce) showed early talent
as a modern dancer but became
aggressive and self-destructive and
was eventually committed to an
asylum.
Joyce doubted she could be
schizophrenic because her thought
patterns were similar to his own.
Jung (who was treating her) said
father and daughter were like two
people who had arrived at the
bottom of the river: “James had
dived there, whereas Lucia had
fallen in”.
CONTACT WITH REALITY
Prime marker of sanity.
Salvador Dali was a
talented painter whose
surrealism seemed
inspired by madness.
However, he retained
self-insight:
There is one difference
between a madman and
me. The madman thinks
he is sane, whereas I
know that I am mad.
Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937